James Walter on The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia by Frank Bongiorno

The EightiesBook Review: Frank Bongiorno, The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia (Black Inc., Melbourne, 2015), xiii and 370 pp. ISBN 9781863957762. Hb.$45.00.

By James Walter 


Frank Bongiorno’s history of the 1980s is an ambitious exercise in marrying cultural and social history with politics and economics. It is wide-ranging in its attention to dominant mores, business, real estate speculation, national security, popular culture (music, film and literature), celebrity, consumption, sport, sex, gender roles, the labour market, leading figures in each domain and how all of these were experienced “from below”. Bongiorno’s curiosity concerning these disparate elements is always engaged and engaging, and will revive memories for everyone over forty as well as introducing younger cohorts effectively to the period. But the spine of the book is a political and economic history, and it is this that ensures coherence in the tapestry he weaves. What is achieved is a bi-focal account of contemporary history: what were key actors trying to achieve, and how did their decisions impact upon lived experience?

Hence, political events and policy decisions drive the events that are described. The opening chapter sets the tone, with contingent challenges (the Ash Wednesday bushfires; the El Nino drought) paired with the 1983 election and the start of the reformist Hawke/Keating Labor administration. Such reminders of the unexpected—governments may have “vision”, but they must also manage disasters indicative of the limits of their remit—might be read as a timely reminder to beware the hubris of all-knowing policy insiders. Their decisions may be driven by the best of intentions, but fortune intervenes, much will remain beyond their control and decisions taken may well have unintended consequences.

Bongiorno is not a critic of the political class, but a realist. He provides a fair minded account of the economic problems that confronted the country with the collapse of the post-war Keynesian consensus, and of the imperatives that drove reform minded politicians to adopt market solutions. Many others have tackled this scenario, and from many perspectives, but Bongiorno’s adept synthesis of motives, decisions and outcomes—the cycles of boom and crash and incremental advance—offers a welcome path through this proliferating debate.

Keating and Hawke, 1983. Photographer unknown.
Keating and Hawke, 1983. Photographer unknown.

What is most striking is his ability to show just how such decisions shaped those other domains—from cultural production, to consumption patterns, public events, the way families lived, gender relations, business practice, labour relations, sporting codes, community values, unequal life chances and so on. And while he acknowledges that the marriage of neo-liberalism and globalisation is a constant in all the Western polities of the time, he shows persuasively that Australia adapted to this differently, seeking “to combine a shift towards the market with a commitment to social spending … a basic level of government support for all, and a continuing role for unions in the workplace”: this set it apart from both Britain and the United States in the 1980s. Yet it was not enough.

What emerges is a bracing counter to the celebratory rhetoric of reform champions, such as Paul Kelly. National prosperity eventually increased, but not without a lot of pain in the 1980s. Certainly, the “power of liberated financial markets combined with computer technology, economic liberalism and mass consumption to create something new and powerful”, but unintended consequences were equally remarkable. Reform was accompanied by the enormously wasteful excesses of the reckless “spiv” culture in business and banking, the surrender of industrial capacity (with devastating effects on working class communities) and a return to commodity exports rather than the anticipated “smart” economy, a flat-lining in the economic circumstances of the middle class, disempowerment of citizens as state functions were outsourced or privatised to commercial agencies whose costs and accountability were veiled “commercial in confidence”, and above all the diminution of the “fair go” as inequality increased inexorably.

Arguably, what needs to be recalled is that it ended in tears, in the recession with which the decade ended. This, we are now told, finally cleaned up the excesses, mopped up inefficiencies and set us up for prosperity to come. But that, says Bongiorno, is “the view from the summit rather than the suburbs, where the recession would exact a pitiable toll”. Indeed, the story of heroic reform relies on a forgetfulness of the 1980s: it could not be told “until the anger, shock and disappointment that so many people felt about the 1980s—and especially the crash with which it ended—had dissipated”. And so Bongiorno reminds us of the essential contribution of contemporary history: to challenge the “forgetfulness” shrouding even the recent past and to reintroduce the nuance needed if we are properly to understand the view propagated from “the summit”.

In this demonstration of his range, ability to synthesise diverse strands and to weave a compelling and accessible story, Frank Bongiorno emerges as one of our best popular historians. This is a book that deserves and will likely achieve a wide readership. It has been (unlike some academic monographs) edited with precision and attractively presented: a handsome addition to Black Inc.’s increasingly impressive list. Traditional academic publishers (and University compilers of A-list publishers) take note.


Professor James Walter is Professor of Political Science in the School of Social Sciences, Monash University.


Citation: James Walter, “Review of The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia“, Recorder, no. 285, March 2016, 1-2.

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